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When veteran political operative Joe Louis Ruffin Jr. got angry about the District’s stadium deal with Major League Baseball (MLB), he didn’t just bore friends and neighbors with speeches about fat cats ripping off the city. He went to work.
Ruffin is waging a one-man assault against the government’s agreement with MLB to build a ballpark in Southeast. Ruffin’s Ward 3 address has appeared on two slick mailings to likely voters. He purchased an ad in the Washington Post and bankrolled a poll showing that D.C. voters think baseball owners should kick in more cash for a stadium. Ruffin also crafted a recorded phone message urging residents to tell their councilmembers to vote no on the stadium lease agreement. The message concluded with the tag line, “Paid for by Joe Ruffin.”
The council vote is expected to occur within a few weeks, or whenever Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp line up the necessary votes to make the deal happen.
Political operatives put the tab for Ruffin’s anti-stadium publicity in the $10,000 range. Ruffin says that number is high. He also says the cash didn’t come from any vested interest in town and that the campaign’s only funder is Joe Ruffin. “If you can find a soul to pay me for this, I’ll take it,” he says. “The American Cancer Society—maybe the FBI or the CIA.”
The burly, tough-talking Ruffin likes to lurk in the background of D.C. political fights. He was an adviser for mayoral hopeful Michael Brown during the exploratory period of the campaign. Ruffin left in spring 2005 and says the candidate still owes him money. The Rev. Al Sharpton hired Ruffin to run his 2004 D.C. presidential primary bid. Former At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty have also been recipients of Ruffin’s backroom advice.
The baseball deal is outrageous enough to bring Ruffin out of the shadows. He says other cities that built stadiums got a big chunk of change from baseball owners and thinks D.C. deserves a similar deal. During his time with Brown, Ruffin also had a tangential connection with Robert Siegel, who owns a mini-empire at the proposed stadium site, including the office building that housed Brown’s exploratory committee office. Siegel’s businesses would be razed if the stadium deal were to go through, so the owner has publicly fought the stadium deal and has sued the city with the goal of stalling the land acquisition. Most of his businesses are gay clubs or gay-themed variety shops, outfits not so easily relocated to U Street NW or Alabama Avenue SE. Ruffin says there’s no Siegel money in his pot. “I wouldn’t know Siegel if he walked in the room,” he says.
Ruffin doesn’t represent an organization, a political-action committee, or a candidate, meaning he’s free to spend unlimited cash on his political message without any public disclosure. Like virtually every other jurisdiction in the country, D.C. doesn’t require a person expressing his or her personal opinion on legislation to report spending on so-called voter-education campaigns. For disclosure to be triggered, “It has to be a campaign, referendum, a recall, or an initiative measure,” says D.C. Office of Campaign Finance General Counsel Kathy Williams. Under D.C. law, Ruffin isn’t even considered a lobbyist, because, as Williams says, “lobbying means communicating directly with councilmembers.” Ruffin prefers to communicate with D.C. voters.
Some baseball backers are still awaiting a grassroots campaign directed by Mayor Williams to counter Ruffin’s barrage. So far, the mayor has rejected mounting a high-profile, in-your-face assault to stir up the pro-baseball rabble and win over councilmembers. And it’s not as if the pro-stadium forces don’t have resources at their disposal. “[Williams] could get on the phone to 10 people and have all the money we would need for a great campaign in one afternoon,” says one operative. “And lots of top-flight people are ready to provide their services at cost.” But no one will step up and start a big grassroots campaign without the blessing of the team now working out of the executive suite’s dugout.
Instead, Williams is relying on the highbrow approach. He’s trying to show individual councilmembers the wisdom of the Southeast stadium plan. The mayor has chosen to pursue a free media blitz rather than hit up a few pals in the business community and craft a message that might change the public perception of the stadium deal. He must figure that councilmembers are swayed more by stories in the Washington Post than by calls and e-mails from constituents. Williams now has almost nothing to offer in terms of chits and has never built a political machine that can crank out votes or make things miserable for any ambitious pol who crosses him. Maybe stadium backers figure that in the short run—with a lease vote looming—the majority of D.C. voters can’t be convinced that the city could ever strike a fair deal with a greedy outfit like MLB.
At this stage, most people have made up their minds on baseball anyhow. “I don’t think what Joe is doing is having much impact at all,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. “Sometimes campaigns are so obvious they are counterproductive.” Patterson’s decision to support the lease agreement after voting against the broader baseball package last year represents the great hope of baseball enthusiasts. She subscribes to the administration’s theory that the politics of baseball will change before the September Democratic primary—that somehow when the stadium deal is approved and the Nationals are playing again, baseball won’t be such a downer for voters.
Patterson had better hope she’s right if she expects to have any chance of winning her bid for D.C. Council chair. She should remember that the hoopla associated with the Nationals’ 2005 season might have contributed to the complacency of the baseball backers who were caught flat-footed when they discovered a lack of council support for the stadium lease. Williams had ample time and opportunity to sell his baseball vision to the masses, but now he’s been forced into extra innings.
Ruffin may not be changing many minds on the council, but he is certainly getting under the skin of pro-stadium political players. He says he was offered a large sum of money to end his efforts to undermine the stadium deal. Most political operatives dismiss Ruffin’s claim as bravado, and no one has taken credit for trying to shut him up.
For his part, Ruffin has little interest in discussing his current obsession. “I am not running a campaign,” he writes in an e-mail. “Come on, I’ve been around this city a long time. The only publicity I need is a thank you on my tombstone.”
The financial backers of Williams’ new Internet blitz to sell the Southeast stadium deal are no secret: the District taxpayers. Residents logging on to the dc.gov home page to pay a parking ticket, report a pothole, or schedule a bulk-trash pickup are now greeted by a Washington Nationals banner above the headline, “The Southeast Stadium Is a Home Run for DC.”
Quite a lead item for a site that “is designed to serve residents and visitors and provide information that they need to live, work and play,” in the words of a D.C. government Webhead.
Mayoral spokesperson Vincent Morris claims credit for putting the pro-stadium information front and center. He says that with the lease vote looming, lots of people are looking for stadium info that was once scattered around the city Web site. “One of the things we realize is this is a huge deal. We haven’t been doing it justice,” he says.
Morris finds nothing wrong with giving residents information about a major economic-development project. “It’s not like the mayor is saying vote for me or vote for the lease,” he says. “It is just facts. If there was political stuff in there you could complain about it,” he says.
A click on the baseball links on the home page offers a couple of things that stadium critics might whine about:
•The “Read All the Latest News About Baseball in DC” link: The “latest news,” here, includes a letter to the editor of the Washington Post penned by City Administrator Robert Bobb, a press release from the mayor urging a yes vote on the lease, and the announcement of a Williams-led rally to push for a yes vote.
•The “View Public Comments and Testimony” link: Three dense letters from the mayor to councilmembers restating the mayor’s economic case for the Southeast stadium are supplemented by comments from baseball backers. The list includes this clearly nonpolitical statement made by Woodbridge Warriors Youth Organization Founder Mason Clark at a recent D.C. Council hearing: “I ask you to accept this lease; do what is best for DC 30 or more years from now, not what might be more popular in the 2006 elections.”
Morris did manage to include a legislative section that features D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi’s stadium-cost estimates and the original baseball-stadium agreement.
No one expects the District’s Internet portal to be a politics-free zone. But numerous city Web site users say they can’t remember a similar sales job running on municipal cyber-property. “Some people would say that’s a campaign. I’m just saying I’m being responsive,” Morris says.
Opponents of the stadium-lease deal say the taxpayer-funded Web site is no place for the mayor to make what is essentially a political case. “I’m going to ask for equal time,” says John Capozzi, of the group No D.C. Taxes for Baseball.
THE CONSPIRACY LIVES
Don’t look now, but some supporters of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. have the real story behind his forgetfulness problems with the tax man: MLB set him up.
Over the past week, posters have appeared on lampposts inciting Barry loyalists to rally to his side at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse on Jan. 18. That’s when Barry will be sentenced for not having filed a tax return since 1999. He pleaded guilty in October to two misdemeanor tax charges, admitting that he failed to pay most of his income taxes for five years after leaving the District government.
The Jan. 18 sentencing date is generating plenty of nostalgic paranoia. It was on Jan. 18, 1990, that Barry was arrested at the Vista Hotel after being videotaped smoking crack cocaine.
“The fat cats are out to get Marion Barry once more,” the poster reads. “Let’s come together and show solidarity with the old warrior. When they are done with him, they are coming after you and me. Coming after your health care, your housing, your children’s education. And for what? A baseball stadium.” By “they,” organizers apparently mean the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
The new conspiracy goes like this: Barry’s real crime wasn’t nonpayment of taxes but opposing the proposed baseball stadium. Once he turned against the project, the fat cats released the federal-law-enforcement hounds on Barry.
The contact for the rally, Shuta Myoli, says Barry’s prosecution is the same old story of the feds going after a man standing up for the people. “Mr. Barry speaks up for D.C., so he is being harassed,” says Myoli. “That’s how most people see it.” When asked whether Barry’s admission of not filing a tax return might have something to do with his current predicament, Myoli is unmoved. “There are a lot of politicians who do stuff like that, and it never surfaces,” he says. —James Jones
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